The Discourse of Difficult

 

Writers' Tears

I think it’s time to ditch the discourse about just how difficult it is to write. It doesn’t serve us well, and it just gives academics something else to complain about.

I know those memes about the difficulty of writing are writers’ attempts to laugh at themselves; and, there’s nothing wrong with that. We can all laugh along with the writer who’s spent an entire morning producing a near-blank page. Sometimes that happens, and it’s healthy to be able to laugh about it. But, repeating the mantra about the difficulty of writing, over and over and over again as academics so often do, isn’t healthy. Writing is not the most difficult part of my job. That doesn’t mean that it’s always easy, or that it’s not sometimes frustrating, but it rarely ever feels excruciating.

This discourse doesn’t serve our students well.

It’s a poor approach to teaching writing. It’s also an ineffective way to help students to enjoy writing and become better writers. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us that some students may learn to dislike what is supposed to be difficult for them. Students will learn that writing is something that is to be endured (somewhat painfully) as a part of their temporary status as university students – like the parking lottery, library fines, and being known by a nine digit identity marker. If we don’t give ourselves permission to see writing as a pleasurable activity at least some of the time, then it’s unlikely our students will learn to see it that way either.

By repeating this discourse, we’re teaching our students to underestimate their own writing potential and abilities, and we’re closing off a valuable avenue of expression to them. We’re also devaluing the supports that we’ve built to encourage them – like writing centres.

This discourse doesn’t serve professors well either.

The discourse of difficulty leads some early career researchers to avoid writing, or, at least to delay its inclusion among their academic responsibilities. This is often to their detriment. A lack of scholarly publications is likely to lead to hurtful assessments by colleagues, whose membership on tenure and promotion committees will almost certainly demonstrate their adeptness at counting.

There might be additional punitive measures for faculty members’ adherence to the discourse of difficulty, including increased teaching loads, denied merit pay, and/or departmental and administrative disfavour. All of these are likely to have negative effects on self-worth, job satisfaction, and career advancement and promotion.

Professors who choose not to confront and challenge the discourse of difficulty are likely to continue to feel its consequences long after their ‘early career’ phase has ended. They’ll quickly discover that they can travel around the globe delivering twenty minute papers at academic conferences and chairing panels about administrative decision-making, can build social networks, and be the person who everyone wants to have a drink with at the conference bar. But, like it or not, those who get to be part of the conversations in academia, and whose ideas get noticed are those whose words actually make it into print.

Challenging this discourse, like other difficult parts of our workplace takes time and perseverance. It also takes practice. Lots and lots and lots of practice.

The next academic myth to tackle?  Perhaps the claim that no one reads what academics write.

 

 

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S. A. D. (Seasonally Affected Devising)

Winter image

I was away when the first snow arrived this year. I had retreated to some place warmer, but I returned to a driveway covered in snow and ice. One, or the other, will probably remain there until spring.  Mainland weather reports often aren’t correct about the weather in Newfoundland. We are not part of the Maritimes. It’s not freezing cold here – at least not by Montréal or Winnipeg standards. We get rain during the winter. Followed by freezing rain. And slush.  And, beautiful, light, large flakes of snow. And then those little tiny, almost-not-there flakes that indicate there’s going to be fifty centimetres of the white stuff. We can get all of this in the span of a few hours. This is normal: it’s called winter in Newfoundland.

I’ve begun the transition into winter writing habits.

Because sitting still, without moving, invites the cold and stiff muscles, I encourage the annual winter migration of warm blankets into my study, and their gradual formation into a flock. To retain the heat, and the flock, I close all the doors into my study and shut myself off from the rest of the house. I have a fireplace in here, but I can still hear the whirling wind and the pelting rain, and can see the accumulating snow.

It’s much more difficult to get up early to write in the winter. I have to accept that it takes longer to warm up my body. And my writing.

It takes more physical and mental energy. It takes more coffee.

The lack of light bothers me, and probably more than it should. The sun sets early.  There are also lots of grey days when the sun rarely comes out from behind the clouds. In winter, my study is almost never bathed in sunlight. I try to compensate with a good desk lamp, but most days, it’s still not really bright, or even light.

In the evenings, I spend more time organizing my desk for the next days’ writing activities, so I have no excuses for not getting up.

During the winter, I write in my warm (not-to-be-seen-in-public) writing clothes. I check a weather app before I start writing, so I have a reasonable idea about how long it’s going to take to get out of my writing clothes and into winter clothing, how long it’s going to take to scrape the snow and ice off the car, and how long it’s going to take me to drive in winter road conditions. (I already know exactly what time I don’t want to leave to begin the crawl behind the local school bus run).

My goal is to write early every morning, (except Saturdays).

Every morning. Even when it’s still dark.

Every morning. Even when it’s cold outside.

Every morning. Even when I’d prefer to be sleeping.

Every morning.

 

 

2017 in Review

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In January 2017, I outlined a short list of the five people and things that facilitated my academic writing over the course of the year. Many of those still apply, but I’ve noted some 2017 additions, for which I’m appreciative.

#5: Grant adjudication

It’s a privilege to participate in the process of grant adjudication. Over the past decade, I’ve adjudicated grants for more than half a dozen different granting bodies and agencies. I take this responsibility seriously. I take on this work in addition to my assigned workload, and even though it requires additional reading, some writing, and another deadline. Applicants’ enthusiasm about their research feels contagious. It’s gratifying to read carefully crafted and plotted ideas, words, and plans. The required ranking (as difficult as it is) provides insight into how good ideas are communicated clearly, and submissions reflect how my fields of research and scholarship are actively shaped. Participating in these processes continues to rejuvenate my writing, and my enthusiasm for academic writing.

#4: Massimo Vigenelli’s graphics

Italian graphic artist and designer, Massimo Vigenelli understood the importance of details. I appreciate a perfect typeface, and I’m enamoured with a clean, modernist calendar. Every year, I happily pay a small fortune to have Massimo Vigenelli’s Stendig calendar shipped to me from off the island. I hang it in my home office and use it to record my writing activities and deadlines. I might be able to write without a Stendig calendar, but I’d prefer not to have to try.

#3: Snow days

‘Tis the season. This is Newfoundland, so there will be snow. There will also be snow days. Most businesses, including the university, will close. Folks will be warned to stay off the roads. The snow will accumulate. I’m probably one of the few people who’s hoping for more of these days. I’m giving myself permission to use snow days as unanticipated favours of time and quietness. I will deal with rescheduled classes, meetings, and snow removal later.

#2: My writing desk

I can write almost anywhere. But, my preference is to write at an antique, oak desk that I’ve owned for almost thirty years and have dragged across four provinces. By modern standards, it probably falls short as a writing desk. It sits at a good height, but the surface space is limited. It accommodates my laptop, excellent lighting, a handful of pens and Post-it notes. At best, there’s room for a single, carefully stacked pile of books. It has a lone drawer that squeaks, and the shelf underneath the desk accommodates my printer, and little else. But, I’m conditioned to work at this desk and when I sit at this desk, it’s to write. On snow days, it’s my favourite place to be.

#1: My new book club

I’m beginning 2018 with a new book club, and a new list of fiction, none of which I’ve read previously. A colleague (with whom I also write) researches book culture, and she spends a considerable amount of time explaining that book clubs aren’t just spaces where women gossip and nosh; they’re places where women actually discuss books. I’m looking forward to participating in some of those discussions in 2018.

 

90 Productive Minutes

Writing Notebooks

After teaching for the past 20 years, I have a pretty good idea about how much time it takes to prepare a lecture that I’ve never taught before, and how much time it takes to revise and update a lecture that I’ve taught previously. I have a pretty good idea about how much time a meeting should take. I also have a keen sense (unfortunately from experience) of knowing when a meeting has taken far too much time, but we’re all still in the same room with nothing being accomplished.

I also know how much time it takes to sort and file the papers on my desk. And that’s more time than anyone would think is reasonable.

I’m still learning how much time it takes to plan and complete specific writing tasks. I want to know this because if I know how long it takes to complete a task, I’ll have a better idea about how long it takes to work through all of the tasks that are necessary to complete a single writing project. And, if I know how long it takes to complete a single writing project, I can better manage simultaneous projects, and work towards deadlines instead of past them.

Also, I’d like more time to do other things. Nothing extravagant. Just things like cooking a meal, going for a long walk, or having coffee with friends. A hobby? (Laughter, and more laughter).

These notebooks represent some of my writing time. Every two pages (single spaced and single sided) represents 90 minutes of writing. Each of these 90 minute sessions is also a guided meeting with other writers, in Jo Van Every’s, Meeting with Your Writing, https://jovanevery.ca/mwyw/

Full disclosure: this is outright promotion, she has lots to offer. Check it out.

In each 90 minute session, I intentionally plan and track my writing. I identify specific writing tasks to be completed, and then track my focus and progress. If this sounds like a structured process, that’s because it is.  That’s why it’s 90 minutes that I’ve spent writing, instead of 90 minutes spent in procrastination-related activities, like folding laundry.

When I look back though these notebooks, I’m surprised at relatively how minor many of these writing tasks appear. I’ve record tasks like: move text from one section to another in the paper; integrate the ideas from a single section of an article into my draft; devise an outline of a single section; write two well-structured and succinct paragraphs in the conclusion; check the citations in the Notes.

You get the general idea.

In an average 90 minute session, I can begin one of these tasks, but often, I don’t carry it through to completion. This might seem frustrating; but, I’ve learned to put it in the larger context of what I’ve learned about writing so far. I’ve learned that: even during a busy week, I can find time for at least one 90 minute writing session; what seem like relatively small writing tasks will often take longer to complete than I think they will; that getting these tasks started is an accomplishment, and that completing these small tasks is an even bigger accomplishment; that I can control my focus by concentrating on specific tasks; that projects proceed more quickly when I write regularly; and, that writing often generates new ideas for future writing projects.

I’ve learned that 90 minutes, plus 90 minutes, plus 90 minutes, plus 90 minutes adds up. And that it’s a pretty good feeling when it does.

 

Conference Basics

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I present my research at academic conferences, where I frequently cross paths with a previous graduate student who’s now a colleague with a completed doctorate.

Some of the conferences we attend are better than others.  (That’s an actual conference venue pictured above).

Good conferences are often down to their participants. So, at the last conference we attended, we discussed what we considered to be ‘conference basics’ for participants. Thanks, Pamela!

Here are our basics:

When applying to participate, submit a clear abstract, title, and author bio. Incomplete programmes aren’t necessarily a reflection of the conference organizers; often, they’re a reflection of unorganized participants. Conference organizers are busy people, and some of them won’t use their precious and finite time to chase you down for information that you’ve already been asked to provide to them.

Time your presentation in advance. This way, you won’t appear flustered or affronted when an efficient session chair informs you that your allotted time is finished.

If you’re included on the schedule, but you cannot attend, let the organizers know as far in advance as possible. Awkward? Perhaps. But, it’s also awkward for the session chair and other presenters if you’re a ‘no show.’ As a courtesy, other presenters have timed their own presentations. Why should they be left in potentially awkward situations because you didn’t inform the conference organizers about your absence?

Test your technology in advance of your presentation. There’s something about being in front of an audience (even a familiar one) that makes it likely that you’ll fumble with the most mundane technological task. Even those same technological tasks that you perform every day.

Twitter protocol didn’t used to be part of conference basics, but, it should be today. Having no policy about Twitter in place at a conference or meetings doesn’t mean that it isn’t relevant. If you’re provided with a specific Twitter feed, feel free to use it, but apply some common sense. Personally, I don’t mind if people tweet my paper while I’m presenting it. However, one of my colleague does mind. She wants to know her audience is listening, and she doesn’t accept that tweeting and listening can happen simultaneously. Knowing this, I’m not going to tweet during her presentation. I’ll tweet after it and be courteous enough to share my tweets with her.

Attend presentations other than your own.  ‘Surely, people don’t present their work, and then just leave?’ They do. And, it’s rude. Conferences involve listening. Listening is work. It is tiring. So, you don’t have to participate in every single session, but you do have to participate, as an audience member in sessions other than your own.

As an audience member, ask smart questions of other presenters and be courteous. Presenters remember smart questions, and they also remember questions that are asked in especially rude or demeaning ways. Which would you prefer to be remembered for? Most presenters hope to receive feedback about their research and engage in scholarly conversations. While it may be tempting to preface your questions with a long-winded-statement, disguised-as-a-preamble, about your own research (and for administrators, about the situation at your own particular university) resist this urge. It’s more likely to stop that conversation than to keep it flowing. If it’s entirely necessary that the presenter know all about your work and its importance, you can update them during the scheduled coffee break.

It can be especially difficult to attend conferences hosted at your own university or city, or in your own hometown. Other obligations pull you away, or you might assume that you’re too important to be pulled away from your desk. Honestly, I’m not sure I know anyone whose job is so important that they can’t plan, in advance, to attend a few sessions at a conference.

Attend the scholarly association’s Annual General Meeting. (It’s likely listed as the AGM in the conference program). Conference organizers count on participants to attend. If you don’t attend, the people who have been working hard all year on your behalf, will not have the quorum needed to continue transacting association business on your behalf.

Belong to academic associations. Most academic associations need members and membership fees. They also need executive members, who are elected from among their own members who will, one day, organize conferences.

If these conference basics don’t seem relevant to you now, they might in future, when you’re among the conference organizers.

And, lastly, get involved, enjoy the conference, and have fun.

 

Writing Bliss

Arteles Photo

I spent the month of August with a small group of writers and artists at a residential artists’ retreat in rural Finland. The locals often hear Newfoundland, pronounced properly, as ‘New Finland,’ so they’re particularly interested to hear about ‘here.’

My month of writing bliss has me wondering what attitudinal changes (hey look folks, no costs!) might make writing spaces in universities more hospitable.

I know that a writing residency is an artificially constructed environment. But having said that, it does offer some clarity about the conditions that facilitate creativity and writing.

Among its greatest value was what Helen Sword, in Air and Light and Time and Space calls “the power of place.” The place was beautiful. Think big skies, open green fields, blue lakes, gardens, forest, and extended daylight. It had it all. It had a ready supply of wild blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, red currants, white currants, gooseberries, and chanterelle mushrooms.

It was quiet.

So quiet.

We enjoyed the company of writers and artists, from nine different countries, who were equally interested in and committed to creative processes.

Writing and creativity were visible and valued.

Every day.

They weren’t secretive activities that only happened behind closed doors. We often worked with our doors open, in communal studio spaces, and in our shared living spaces. We cooked in the large kitchen, often ate together, and installed the disco ball in the kitchen (think 1980s Newfoundland kitchen party?) for a few late nights.

We discussed writing. Openly and often.

We had a weekly, group discussion about our creative processes. We shared half-formed ideas and experiments.

We had conversations about writing that acknowledged its intrinsic value as an activity that instigates thinking, reflection, and contemplation. It was refreshing— like a plunge in the cold lake after a hot sauna—to have conversations about writing that didn’t presume its synonymous use with the word publishing.

We had strong Finnish coffee.

And, a wood burning sauna.

We took long walks. Every day.

We had staff. Seriously. They were other artists whose job it was to ensure we had the conditions we needed to create. They wore badges that said ‘Creative Forces.’  And who doesn’t want one of those?

We had time for reading. We recommended books and poems, and amended the lists with our responses and reactions.

The creativity in work spaces permeated our social activities. Dancing, campfires, late night star-gazing, impromptu coffee windows, listening tours in the woods, and Tiki universes? All entirely possible.

I thought. I read. I wrote.

And wrote. And wrote.

Ah, bliss.

 

 

Reading Spaces

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My research term includes reading, in all its varieties. It includes necessary reading (of the ‘I-must-incorporate-this-article’ variety) as I write and revise. And write and revise. And write and revise. It includes contemplative reading (of the ‘I’d-really-like-to-read-this’ variety), and it includes escapist reading: (‘this-is-purely-for-pleasure’).

I’m skilled at the hurried and necessary reading. This type of reading addresses gaps in my knowledge and writing. It’s often identified for me by students, colleagues, and external reviewers, and tends to be for integrative purposes (e.g. “Hasn’t this author read X, Y and Z?”). And, it is necessity that often makes this type of reading feel hurried. A looming deadline adds pressure; but, it’s also that looming deadline that ensures this reading gets prioritized and completed.

Contemplative reading is more challenging. I’d like to do more of it. The pressures to do this kind of reading are mostly indirect. There’s no one telling me what to read. Its applications aren’t necessarily apparent. Most days, it feels like it can wait. It’s the open-ended nature of contemplative reading that puts it right up there with ‘exercise every day, get lots of fresh air, and eat well’ in its ability to make me feel inadequate. It’s not prioritized often enough.

You might imagine escapist reading slides even further down in my priorities; but, that’s not the case. Because it’s been a part of my daily routine for so long, I do this type of reading every day. Even when I’m busy. This is probably a healthy coping mechanism to alleviate my guilt about the all that unread, contemplative reading.

I’m working on doing more contemplative reading because it’s important to me. It’s the activity that made me want to be an academic in the first place. It’s important because it’s where I get my ideas about what to write. Often, it is a model of good writing.

It used to be that the pile of (unread) contemplative reading lived on the corner of my desk. The longer the pile of books sat there, the less I saw them. They were quickly buried under the Post-It notes, notebooks, Sharpies, and phone cords.

That’s because I sit down at my desk to write.

Except for the necessary kind of reading, I rarely read at my desk. Reading books doesn’t feel like writing.

Recently, I’ve moved this pile of books, so I could do more contemplative reading. I moved them to space where I never write, but where I often read. I still have all the essentials:  it’s a comfortable space, there is good light, and it’s close to the Nespresso machine. It’s prime ‘real estate’ for a stack of books, but so far no one’s complaining because they know I’m happier when I’m reading.

So much better!

Now I’m also accumulating escapist reading for my vacation.

That ideal space will be somewhere to read where the major attraction doesn’t involve ice, where the trees have leaves, and temperature is in double digits.

Níl Tsunduko (*)

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Apparently, there’s a word in Japanese, “tsunduko” for someone who buys books compulsively, some of which remain unread. In the English language, the word ‘hoarder’ has broader and more negative connotations. Some academics may be afflicted with tsunduko; and, based on a few of the university office interiors I’ve seen, some academics may also be hoarders.

But, the culture of print books that’s long been associated with universities is changing. There are fewer books around the university, which appears to be moving away from its long-time association with that Newfoundland expression, ‘book-learnin’.

These changes are evident everywhere on campus.

This isn’t nostalgia about the book in print form. I’m not nostalgic about that. All things change. I’m not a technophobe. I own a Kindle and I love it, especially for travel. I buy and read lots of books on my Kindle.

I know students have books, but I seldom see students carrying books anymore. Their books are on their phones, ipads, and laptops. They’re rarely in their hands, or on their desks. This past academic year, I taught three paperback books that were not textbooks. I realized quickly that if I wanted students to work from books, I had to ask them in advance to bring them to class.

And, it appears that it’s difficult to give print books away. In September, someone cleared off some of the bookshelves in my department’s seminar room and set up a box, labelled ‘free books.’ The box was set up next to the doorway in a room that’s used as classroom space for undergraduate and graduate students, as regular faculty meeting space, and that hosts at least one off-campus group. I assumed the books would be snapped up quickly. (After all, one of the most successful community events is an annual used book sale organized by the Canadian Federation of University Women). Eight months later, some of the books are gone; many are still there.

Except amongst hoarders, the space that was once accorded to books in faculty offices is changing too. Some of my colleagues use their bookcases to display plants, artwork, and family photographs. I guess because my artwork is on the walls, it’s not unusual for students who come to my office hours to comment about “how many books I have.”

I have three bookcases. With books.

I’ve moved offices over the past couple of years and notice that faculty members tend to leave (at least some) of their books behind; in their new offices, they remove bookcases. Bookcases were once a highly sought after item on campus. They were expensive and there weren’t enough of them. Now, when I see a bookcase in the hallway, I assume it’s en route to the surplus furniture storage area. A search of my university’s Furniture Finder confirms this. There are three desks available (probably replaced by the standing desk), three filing cabinets (two of these are gold coloured so I know why they’re available), two keyboard trays, a large chalkboard (also a dinosaur), and eight bookcases.

This space is the residential retirement home for the once-prized bookcase.

Books used to be available in the university bookstore too. For a short time at the beginning of each term, they still are. But, the only compulsion that’s likely to be gratified in this space today is the insatiable need to acquire t-shirts.

There are still lots and lots of books in the university’s libraries. Libraries work with mega-size wholesalers whose job it is to ensure that librarians continue to purchase books. However, a good number of the library’s users are in the commons, around the computer screens that have become the new repositories for books. The users who are in the stacks, where books are shelved, are lining its perimeter in “makerspaces,” study rooms, and cubicles.

I know that having fewer books around the university doesn’t necessarily mean that people are reading less.

People may be reading more.

I wonder if there’s already a word in Japanese for the compulsive acquisition of electronic books.

And, I wonder, how long it will be before the university is reconfigured to reflect these changes and I no longer have to charge my phone at floor level.

 

 

(*) As I’ve already borrowed one word from a language that I don’t speak, why not add another, from a language that I barely speak, to describe a new reality?

 

 

 

 

Lessons from Reading Week

img_1042This was going to be a blog post, written towards the end of Reading Week, about reading and writing as connected activities.

I was going to discuss my conscious efforts not to set aside large stretches of time specifically for reading. Rather, it was going to be about how I’ve worked to re-frame reading as an activity that happens alongside writing. I was going to write about how efforts to frame writing and reading as connected activities prevent me from using (seemingly endless) amounts of reading as a procrastination strategy to delay writing. I was going to write about how reading while I’m writing helps me to work through my ideas on the page. I was even going to suggest that writing muscles need regular exercise, but that they have to be balanced with rest. If writing muscles are used infrequently they become difficult to move again; and, if overextended, they become weak and ineffectual. And, (ironically) I was going to suggest that the real skill is the ability to coordinate this balance, with deadlines.

Then, towards the end of the week, I got the flu.

There was no reading, and no writing.

There was just rest. Or, I think there was, but I don’t really remember because of the fever.

It wasn’t that I wrote for unusually long stretches during Reading Week. I didn’t. Until I got sick, I spent the majority of the week at my desk. I completed draft copies of an article and a review, and began reading a new book. A colleague and I had a meeting about a new article that we’re co-authoring. I did some grading, registered for a conference, edited a manuscript, set up meetings, participated in my writing group, listened to podcasts, and continued to build up to an amazing ‘18 day continuous streak’ in my Irish language app.

Foolishly, I hadn’t paid much attention to how busy I had been up until Reading Week. I was caught off guard.

There are some lessons here.

The first lesson is that I am not so busy that I can’t get a flu shot. Next year, I will get a flu shot. I will do this no matter how busy I am. This will keep me healthier. It will also alieve the guilt I feel about having infected everyone in my household.

The second lesson is that I will pay attention to how tired I am already. Just because I can ‘work through’ doesn’t actually mean I should actually try to do this. I should have taken the least pressing tasks off my to-do list because being ‘caught up’ is a myth. There is no such thing.

The third lesson is that sleep is not a flexible variable. It seems that I have to re-learn this lesson over, and over, and over again.

The fourth lesson is that using accumulated points to buy a ‘2-day streak freeze’ in my Irish language app is not enough to insulate me from this year’s flu strain. Sadly.

I’m sure there are other lessons, but I’m still too tired to figure out what those might be. Reading Week has ended, and I’ve returned to work—before I can keep down a meal, stomach a cup of coffee, or walk without coughing.

Eventually, I might learn these lessons.